Let’s say you have a successful restaurant that has developed a loyal following over the years. You’ve found the magic formula, and folks seem to love it. But you’ve also noticed some new—and very good—competition in the neighborhood. Change, or not change?
We all know of restaurants that faced with this situation, simply ignore the competition, dig in and say, “Business is going well. Our customers love us. Let’s not mess with a good thing.”
Jim Hamilton had a revelation this year. “I ate somewhere better than us,” he shares, a little sheepishly, “It was time to make some changes.” So rather than rest on his laurels, Hamilton has decided to recreate his much-loved grillroom. Pretty courageous and, lucky for us diners, pretty darn good too.
We had the opportunity to preview the new menu at Hamilton’s Grill Room recently, as well as sit with Hamilton over a few glasses of wine, some fresh oysters, and some lovely steaks.
Ah, I know what you are thinking. “Change? But I love Hamilton’s Grill!” We have friends who come down from North Jersey once or twice a year and insist on eating at Hamilton’s Grill Room the first night of their weekend. No ifs, ands, or buts. I’m a little worried about breaking this to them but I can assure them—and you—that it’s going to be okay.
Jim has always loved oysters and steaks, so that much has not changed. Hamilton and Chef Mark Miller worked on the new menu for three months, shifting it from the Mediterranean-inspired dishes they have made for 26 years to a menu full of fresh seafood and superb steaks, all lovingly cooked by Miller over the restaurant’s famous charcoal-fired grill.
Although Miller has always supported local purveyors, he is taking it a step further. “We want to give our guests the best of the best, the finest, the freshest, local, organic and hormone ingredients available,” Miller says. That includes vegetables from local farms, chicken from Griggstown Farm in Lawrenceville, and grass-fed beef from Tullamore Farm in Stockton.
Even though much of the menu is new, some old favorites remain. The Grilled Jumbo Shrimp with Anchovy Butter, the Grilled Berkshire Pork Chop, and Griggstown’s Rotisserie Roasted Chicken are still there for you to enjoy.
“A loaf of bread, the Walrus said,
is what we chiefly need:
Pepper & vinegar besides
are very good indeed…
Now if you’re ready, OYSTERS, dear,
we can begin to feed!”
– Lewis Carroll
[From the menu at Hamilton's Grill Room]
If you are not a fan of oysters, cooked or raw, you might want to skip the next few paragraphs. If you are a fan, oh, are you going happy at the “new” Hamilton’s Grill.
Let’s start with my personal favorite, the raw oysters. The oyster menu offers at least six types from both the East and West Coasts. We got to try four: Blue Points from Long Island, Standish Shore from Cape Cod, Chef’s Creek from British Columbia and Deer Creek from Puget Sound. All were fresh as can be.
For those of you who can’t stomach raw oysters, Hamilton’s is offering three cooked options. The classic Rockefeller, baked with spinach, bacon, and parmesan, is rich as you might expect, and served on a bed of sea salt. Then there are the Fire-Roasted Oysters, swimming in shallots and Pernod butter. But my first choice would be the Deep-Fried Oysters, served atop deviled eggs. Both cool and warm, lightly spiced and a nice contrast between the crunchiness of the oysters and the creaminess of the egg. I love oysters, I love deep-fried seafood, and I love deviled eggs. What could be wrong?
The appetizer menu also includes Barnegat Bay Clams on the Half Shell, Lump Crab Cocktails, Deep-Fried Calamari with Basil Pesto Aioli, Alaskan King Crab Cakes with Sriracha Mayonnaise, and the popular Grilled Jumbo Shrimp. If you are not into seafood, I’d recommend the Crispy Confit of Duck served with Fig Confit with port wine and honey. It’s rich and earthy, with a lovely crunch to the duck.
For soups and salads, try the LBI Crab Chowder, or any of the salads. We got to sample the Little Gem Romaine Wedge, served with candied walnuts, Roquefort, red beets and a (new) house vinaigrette and the Chopped Salad with watercress, iceberg, avocado, tomato, and hard-boiled eggs, served with a citrus vinaigrette. Both were light and balanced, and a perfect intro to the meat course. And as Julia Child said, “The only time to eat diet food is while you are waiting for the steak to cook.”
Everyone loves grilled steaks. And when Mark Miller is doing the grilling, over an oak charcoal fire, it’s heavenly. [photo] Miller is searching far and wide for the best sources for prime and choice meat. It’s not as if their steaks weren’t good before, but if you are going to set a reputation for steaks, you’ve got to offer the best.
This is the hard part. You will have to choose from seven cuts of beef. Porterhouse (20 oz.), Flat Iron (10 oz.), Center Cut Club Steak (14 oz.), Center Cut Prime Delmonico (14 oz.), NY Strip (12 oz.), NY Strip Steak Prime Cut (12 oz.) or the Grilled Blackened Bone-in Ribeye (16 oz.).
Steak is a very personal choice, I know. But we got to try the Porterhouse, the NY Strip, and the Ribeye, and although all were wonderful, I couldn’t get enough of the ribeye. Fatty, but not too fatty. The Porterhouse is served with the house steak sauce—a veal reduction with garlic and soy sauce. Definitely umami. The NY Strip was delightful, with a hint of charcoal, complimented by a blue cheese butter. Other sauces offered include Prosciutto Fontina Tomato Cream, Roasted Shallot Crème Fraiche, and Truffle Butter.
Like all good steak houses, the meat isn’t inexpensive. Hamilton’s steaks vary from $22 to $39 (the porterhouse, of course) and you can get sides for $6.50 each. Choose from Grilled Seasonal Vegetables, Creamed Spinach, Crumb Crusted Mashed Potato Gratin, Garlic Parmesan & Rosemary Shoe String Fries, and a variety of seasonal dishes. For the non-meat eaters, try the Wood-Roasted King Crab (for two), a Grilled Sesame Crusted Yellow-Fin Tuna, a Cedar Plank Salmon, and Flame-Broiled Lobster.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the delicious desserts made by pastry chef Harry Swaverly, who has been creating sweet ends to meals at Hamilton’s for 15 years. What is gone is the dessert cart (which everyone agreed was a good idea). We got to taste the Grappa Almond Torta, a light shortbread made with almond butter, grappa, and lemon zest, a perfect complement to an after-dinner coffee.
So there it is. A big change at one of our area’s best and most beloved restaurants. It won’t be for everyone (especially vegetarians), but I doubt many will be disappointed. Fresh, quality ingredients, creative cooking, and a charcoal grill. Jim Hamilton is willing to take the chance. “We’ll see if we were right or wrong in time,” he says with a smile.
The new menu debuts tonight, Friday, October 3, 2014
Hamilton’s Grill Room is BYOB, but feel free to stop at the cozy Boathouse bar just across the courtyard before your dinner.